Sleepless Shavuot

From: Sam in Chicago

Dear Rabbi,

This is my first time experiencing Shavuot in a yeshiva environment. I’m told that everybody stays up all night studying Torah, which sounds interesting, but at the same time I’m a little wary of doing so. In school I once had a paper due the next day that I stayed up the entire night writing; in the morning my brain felt like fried tofu and I could hardly function. How important is it to stay up all night on Shavuot and why? Is it perhaps more important to get a good night’s sleep to fulfill the mitzvot of the day?

Dear Sam,

Many, especially in the Yeshiva world, have the custom to stay awake and study Torah the entire night of Shavuot. Many Sefaradim and Chasidim follow a special order of study initiated by the Arizal (based on a passage in the introduction to the Zohar) whereby they read selected portions of the entire 24 books of the Tanach, the 613 mitzvot, as well as excerpts from some esoteric texts.

Shavuot celebrates the day when G‑d gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai. By studying all night, we show our love and enthusiasm for this precious gift. Indeed the 24 books of Tanach mentioned above are referred to as 24 bridal ornaments with which the Jewish People decorate themselves in preparation to receive the Torah, their wedding document, from G-d, the Groom.

Another explanation for staying up all night is that the Jews at Mount Sinai over-slept on that historic Shavuot morning! G‑d had to “wake them up” to teach them the Torah (sound familiar?). We rectify this by staying up all night, to ensure that we won’t sleep late on this day.

Staying up all night is not a halacha, but rather a custom for those who feel they are physically up to it. If staying up all night may cause one to sleep during davening, what was intended to rectify would be ruined. Even if one was able to stay up, but wouldn’t be able to concentrate and enjoy the prayers, the Torah readings, and the other mitzvot of the day such as the holiday meal and making one’s family happy, he should not stay up the whole night.

Regarding this type of situation our Sages taught (Berachot 17a), “Whether one does a lot, or whether one does a little, the main thing is to direct one’s heart to Heaven”. Happy Shavuot!

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